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5 Classic Poisons and the People Who Used Them

Long before our modern industries developed the cleaning products, industrial solvents, and drugs that can kill when misused, people used simple plants to murder each other. Some plants were especially effective.

1. Nightshade

Atropa Belladonna is also known as deadly nightshade. The flowering plant is native to Europe and can grow up to ten feet tall if left to grow for years. Although all parts of the plant are poisonous, the shiny black berries are most poisonous. The words bella donna mean pretty woman in English. This name may have come from the use of belladonna to dilate the eyes in order to make a woman more attractive to men. Image by Flickr user peganum.

180MacBethThe alkaloid Atropine is one of the the active ingredient in nightshade. Atropine is used during surgery to regulate the heartbeat, decrease salivation, and paralyze muscles. In eye surgery, it relaxes the muscles and dilates the eye. Another drug found in nightshade is scopolamine, which has some of the same properties as atropine, and (in very dilute quantities) is also used for motion sickness and to combat drug addiction. Famous users of nightshade are not confirmed, but legend has it that when Agrippina the Younger hired the serial killer Locusta to kill the Roman emperor Claudius, she used nightshade. Before he became king in 1040, Macbeth supposedly used nightshade to poison an army of Danes who invaded Scotland.

2. Hemlock

550hemlock

Poison hemlock (conium maculatum) is a flowering plant with fleshy, carrotlike roots that can grow up to ten feet tall. This hemlock is no relation to the coniferous eastern hemlock tree in North America. All parts of the poison hemlock plant contain poison alkaloids. If ingested, conium will cause paralysis of various body systems. Paralysis of the respiratory system is the usual cause of death. Meanwhile, a victim can't move but is aware of what is happening as the mind is unaffected until death is imminent.
550socrates

The most famous case of hemlock poisoning was that of Greek philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. The 70-year-old was found guilty of heresy in a trial in Athens. His sentence was death by hemlock, and he had to drink the poison by his own hand. Socrates drank up, then walked around until he noticed his legs were heavy. As shown in this 1787 painting by Jacques-Louis David, Socrates was surrounded by students and adherents as he died.

3. Strychnine

550strychnos

Strychnine is made from seeds of the plant Strychnos nux vomica, found in Asia and Australia. The poison was first isolated from the plant in 1818 by two French chemists. Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou, who also isolated quinine (used to treat malaria) from its source. Strychnine has been used as a homeopathic remedy (in very diluted form), a performance-enhacing drug for athletes, a slight hallucinogenic used to cut street drugs, and most commonly as rat poison.

150creamStrychnine is an alkaloid (like hemlock or atropine) that paralyzes the victim and causes death by respiratory failure. There is no antidote for strychnine. Dr. Thomas Neil Cream killed at least seven women and one man, possibly many more, between 1878 and 1892 by giving them strychnine as medicine, both in the US and England. After serving ten years of a life sentence in America, he returned to London to continue poisoning his patients. Cream was convicted of murder in England and executed in 1892. Some have speculated that Cream might even be Jack the Ripper, but records indicate that Cream was in prison in the US when the Whitechapel murders occurred.

4. Curare

550curare

Curare is a mixture of various South American natural resources used for poison arrows and blowgun darts. One of the main ingredients is an extract of the plant Chondrodendron tomentosum.  Curare is used for medicinal purposes in a highly diluted form. The main poison is an alkaloid, which causes paralysis and death much in the same way as strychnine and hemlock. However, after the respiratory system becomes paralyzed, the heart may continue beating for quite some time.

180blowgunDeath by curare is relatively slow and horrific, as the victim is awake and aware but cannot move or even speak. However, if artificial respiration is performed until the poison subsides, the victim will survive. Indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin used curare-laden arrows to hunt game for food. Curare does not affect those who eat the animals who were killed by it. A slightly different recipe for curare is used when the intended target is human, such as that used during tribal war. Curare has also been adapted for use as a muscle relaxant during surgery.

5. Arsenic

550arsenic

Arsenic is a metalloid element, atomic weight 33. It occurs in small amounts in air, water, and soil, and in greater amounts in volcanic ash and in copper and gold mines. Because it kills insects, a compound called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA was used from the 1950s to 2003 to preserve pressure-treated wood. Arsenic has been used in medicines (it was once the indicated treatment for syphilis), chemical warfare, and as a pesticide. Various arsenic compounds are used to color paint and fireworks and as a semiconductor in integrated circuits. It is also used to harden metal for ammunition and the process of bronzing. Image by Flickr user James Laing.

159borgiaArsenic kills by inhibiting the production of necessary enzymes. Small amounts of arsenic ingested over time (possibly through drinking water) can raise the probability of cancer. Acute poisoning causes stomach cramps, diarrhea, confusion, convulsions, vomiting, and death. Murder by arsenic was popular in the Middle Ages as the substance was easy to procure and the symptoms of poisoning resembled those of cholera. Now, evidence of arsenic poisoning is easier to find. Chronic arsenic ingestion can be found months, even years later in the victim's hair and fingernails. The most famous arsenic poisoners were the Borgia family in the Middle Ages. It was said that a little arsenic improved the taste of wine, and the gracious Borgias made sure their guests had the best-tasting wine possible.

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Excerpt
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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